Two Questions On the Hermit

Two questions about the anonymous but enlightened hermit: (1) who is he and (2) why the six pointed star? Less mysterious but also important is the question of why Waite included the very, very negative secondary set of upright divinatory meanings in the Pictorial Key to the Tarot? As we examine the questions, we’ll find links to Father Time, the Christian God the Father, and the head of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin. We’ll also stumble across that famous number, 666. In the end, the identity of the Hermit is in the eye of the beholder, since he seems to hold more than one identity. But that may be appropriate for a major arcanum associated not just with prudence, but also with dissimulation and treason.

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The Star, Goddess at First Light

You’ve got to hand it to Pamela Colman Smith on this one. She took one of the least attractive cards in the Tarot de Marseilles deck, and without substituting any major new elements, turned it into one of the prettiest cards in the RWS deck. But new or old look, The Star raises many questions. Who is she? What Star in particular? Why eight points on the star? Why eight stars? Its order in the majors is important, for one. It is first light after the darkness of The Tower. This is why it’s dawn. And the Goddess appears to be the female goddess from the dawn of civilization herself: Ishtar. There are a number of reasons for the eight stars of eight points each, some of which Waite rolled into his mystical Christian skewing of the tarot. Waite was as heavy-handed on this one as Colman Smith’s hand was deft. The Star is one of those cards where stories and myths abound; and it is through those stories and myths that we can understand it better.

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The Empress of Light, Aphrodite Pandemos

Of the first seven major arcana, two represent the dual aspects of Venus; and one other represents the eternal question of what to do about her? Waite described the Empress as “the woman clothed with the sun, as Gloria Mundi and the veil of the Sanctum Sanctorum.” The High Priestess is pictured in front of the Sanctum Sanctorum, and is the representative of the mysteries in the darkness behind it. So to visit the realm of the High Priestess, Waite seems to say, you go through the Empress. This opposition of light and dark qualities directly relates to the neoplatonic view of the two natures of Venus. There is, according to Wikipedia, an “earthly Aphrodite Pandemos, representing carnal love and beauty, and the heavenly Aphrodite Urania representing a higher and more spiritual love.” Waite’s Empress is very Roman, as we shall see; but then, what else would we expect from a man writing at the height of the British Empire? The RWS Empress is inextricably tied to the material world.

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The Devil Had a Makeover

Eliphas Lévi’s writings in 19th century France markedly changed the meaning of The Devil in Tarot. Lévi identified this major arcanum with Baphomet, the Sabbatic Goat-demon. Prior to Lévi, the Devil had hooves, but also had a human-like head. The now goat-headed demon was seen as the animalistic/bestial side of us. He could now be defeated by rationality. The new Devil was internalized: the sinner driving themself to sin out of their own stupidity or beastliness. Lévi was a particularly strong influence on A.E. Waite. In RWS and derivative decks, the Devil as Baphomet forms the basis of our view of this card as more about sexuality and biologically based urges (such as addiction) than about pure evil.Yet when we read this card as a type of “personal slavery” today, we must ask: is evil only a personal problem? The world is more evil today. If we recognize that in our society it is usually the case that more evil is done to common people than any amount that they do to others, then perhaps a better read, one that may help more querents in a better manner may be something along the lines of: “evil has been done to you. Evil has been done to many others and you are not alone. You can either give in or find help in healing yourself. And perhaps one day, you and I and the others will fight the Devil, together.”

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